I can feel the house mocking me long before I see it. Its presence seems to infuse the landscape, tainting the bleak heath with tendrils of ink seeping deep into the roots of the trees. It whispers to me in the long grass swept to and fro by the same wind which sends the dark clouds scurrying across the gloomy sky, as though they too don’t want to linger long in this dismal place.
I look across at my mother. She doesn’t seem to be affected by the landscape, or the prospect of being cut off from the outside world for two long weeks. She keeps her hands steady on the steering wheel, her eyes focussed hopefully on the narrow winding lane cutting through the heath, but in reality are more likely to be focussed inwardly to the intricate twists and turns of her current novel.
A writers retreat, she had called it, a chance to free herself from the distractions of everyday life, so she can finish the final draft. And of course I have to accompany her, as my father is spending a week in Lanzarote with his new girlfriend, and so can’t spare the time to look after me. I sigh, and return my gaze to the landscape. The heather is in full bloom, undulating over the ground in swathes of purple, punctuated with clumps of bright yellow flowers. Sparse gorse bushes grow low on the ground, and now and then a tree rears up in defiance, its form bent and twisted by the unrelenting wind which rips through this inhospitable place without mercy. Some might call this beautiful, but it fills me with a feeling of loneliness and dread which cannot be explained by natural phenomenon alone.
We approach a small crossroads, and my mother slows down so we can look at the small wooden signpost. One sign pointing to the right announces that Heathcliff Manor is two miles away. Oh man, even the name drips with menace, though I suspect that my mother wouldn’t have chosen it if it had been called Butterfly Lodge. She changes down a gear and turns to the right, the little Fiat protesting now about the sudden incline. As we crest the small hill, the manor house comes into view. It squats incongruously atop the landscape, ill at ease with its surroundings. It would have looked majestic, perhaps, in former years, but now its walls and roof have a look of decay. Ivy engulfs the lower half, like a giant kraken trying to pull the house back into the earth. A massive oak tree stands near the house, its branches reaching out to caress the walls. A wall surrounds the house, marking the perimeter of the manor grounds, but this too seems be crumbling, and has collapsed completely in places.
The road stops at the main entrance, a tall wrought iron gate blocking our way. Our car sighs with relief as my mother kills the engine, and I climb out and walk over to the gates. There’s no sign of any intercom or bell, but then there’s also no sign of any lock, only a simple latch holding the gates together. A single letterbox is built into the right-hand side of the wall. God only knows how often the postman comes out here. I open the latch and push on the gates, expecting them to be stiff and unyielding, but they open with relatively little force required on my part. My mother starts the car up again and drives through far enough so that I can close the gates again, and we carry on together up the long driveway to the main entrance.
There’s no obvious parking space – perhaps the house doesn’t get enough guests to warrant that – so my mother parks the car to one side, and we walk together up the wide staircase to the imposing front door. I shiver as I approach the house, my senses tingling with unidentifiable apprehension. A chain hanging next to the door on the left can only serve as a doorbell, so I reach out and grab hold. I glance at my mother, who returns my gaze with a small smile of encouragement, so I pull the chain once, then step back to see what evil I have awakened by the clanging of the bell.
For while nothing happens, then the door is opened by a maid – seriously, who has maids these days? – who steps back to let us enter.
“Good evening Ma’am,” she says demurely, “you must be the writer. Please come in, Ms. Rabenforth is expecting you.”
The maid withdraws after we enter, presumably to let her mistress know that we have arrived, so I use the time to take in our strange surroundings. We are in a large entrance hall, with black and white tiles arranged in a diagonal pattern on the floor. My eyes are drawn to the huge staircase in the middle of the hall. The wide marble steps lead up to the next level, before the staircase spirals both to the left and right leading presumably to the higher levels. Behind the staircase on either side are more doors. It must have been grand at one point, but the interior mirrors the exterior in levels of maintenance. Despite the tall windows in the wall facing the staircase, the overall impression is one of gloom and shadow.
Footsteps resound now on the marble floor, and a tall elegantly dressed woman descends the staircase to greet us. I’m not the best at judging a person’s age, but if I have to hazard a guess, I would say she’s in her early fifties. She has long jet-black hair, and is wearing a smart black trouser suit.
“Good evening, you must be Mrs. Burns,” she says, extending a hand for my mother to shake. “And this must be Ophelia,” she says turning towards me, “how delightful.”
I don’t tell her that I don’t use that name, and that everyone calls me Philly, as she has already turned her attention back to my mother.
“I hope you find everything to your satisfaction. Dinner is served at eight in the dining room, breakfast at seven. Light refreshment will be served at lunchtime. Should you require anything else, please just ask Jane, she will be glad to help you.”
I turn around and see Jane the maid hovering in the background. I find it unlikely that Jane will be able to conjure up a working internet connection or mobile phone signal, but nevertheless she takes this as her cue, and offers to show us to our rooms.
Ms Rabenforth turns to me again with appraising look which sends an involuntary shiver down my spine. She takes her leave of us with a parting comment to my mother that she really must tell her all about her book. No butlers have appeared to take our bags, so I head back to the car to gather our luggage before following the maid through one of the doors to the left of the staircase. She leads us through a long room which must be the dining room as tables are laid, and down a corridor leading to the guest rooms. I assume we will be given rooms on the ground floor, but then the maid turns and climbs a wooden staircase at the end of the corridor. Presumably the marble staircase is for grand entrances, and not for the likes of lowly guests.
My room is spacious but sparsely decorated. There is a large wardrobe, and a writing desk with a straight-back chair. At least there is an armchair, situated near the window. My eye is caught though by the only other piece of furniture in the room, a magnificent four poster bed, whose impressiveness is probably only matched by its uncomfortableness. Still, it looks pretty good. I walk to the window and look outside. My room faces the front, the view dominated by the huge oak tree standing nearby, its long, gnarled branches almost touching the window pane. The tree is oppressive, it feels like it is crushing the room with its massive presence. I hug myself, and try and control the irrational panic which is welling up inside me. The feeling I felt before, that the house somehow knows me and is mocking me is stronger than ever.
It is late, and I am sitting in my room about to retire to bed. I sat with my mother earlier in the dining room for the evening meal. We were the only guests being served, and I wonder now whether we are the only guests here at all. The house maintains an eerie silence. There were no other cars parked when we arrived, and I find this thought unsettling. I sit in the gloom on the high mattress of the four-poster bed, my feet not touching the floor. I can hear the wind moaning outside, and the faint creak of the tree outside my window. The moon has risen, and dark clouds are scudding across the sky in a wild dance. I draw the curtains and get into bed, pulling the sheets around me so that they come up to my chin. I lie with my eyes half open, wondering what madness it is that has brought us here, and thinking that I will surely not be able to sleep a wink.
I am dreaming. A stormy sky, the wind is whipping a gale around me, blowing the long grass to and fro. I can feel the soft heather underneath my feet. I look around, and see the heath stretching out in front of me for miles, the rolling hills a dark silhouette against the gloomy sky. I start to walk, stumbling over the uneven ground, buffeted by the squalling wind from all sides. Then suddenly I am flying, the landscape opens out beneath me and I feel myself being carried far and fast by the wind. I feel an exhilaration and sense of power course through me as I swoop through the air. I love these sorts of dreams, I used to have them often as I was younger, and I shout in pleasure at the wondrous feeling. Except I don’t shout. A harsh guttural sound escapes from my throat and with it a sense of panic envelops me. I look to my left and right. Instead of outstretched arms I have coal black wings, feathers shining and fluttering in the fleeting moonlight. Instead of a mouth I have a strong black beak. I am also not alone. Flying next to me is a huge raven, a least twice my size. It looks directly at me, it’s gaze boring directly into me. I feel myself tumbling out of the sky, swirling out of control and plummeting to the ground.
I wake up dripping with sweat, tangled up in the bed sheets, my heart pounding. It was just a dream, but I feel afraid and so I lie frozen, listening to the sound of the gale outside. The wind must be blowing the branch of the tree against the window, as I can now hear a tap-tapping against the window pane. The tapping is regular, loud and insistent, and I wonder whether this can be the wind at all, or something more sinister. I am almost paralysed with fear now, but somehow I manage to get my legs to move. They are still tangled in the bed sheets, but by bringing my knees up to my chest I am able to unravel the bed sheets and throw them to one side. I sit on the side of the bed, gripped by indecision and fear. Then I pluck up my resolve, and slip slowly off the bed till I feel my feet make contact with the cold floorboards.
My vision seems to shrink to a narrow tunnel, focussing only on the curtains covering the windows. The tap-tapping is louder and more urgent now. I seem to be no longer in control of my body as I start to take hesitant steps towards the window, one foot after the other, closer and closer. As I reach my hands to the curtains, paralysis grips me again, a cold fist of ice clenching my heart and rendering me immobile. The tapping is as loud as a drum now, and cannot be ignored. I gather up all my courage, and fling both curtains wide open.
My veins turn to ice as a profound fear overcomes me. Outside the window sitting on a branch is a huge raven, it’s head close up to the window, its beak tapping rhythmically and forcefully against the glass. It looks directly at me now, it’s gaze boring into mine. It’s the raven from by dream, it has to be, but how is this possible? I want to run, but my feet seem to be glued to the floor, and all I can manage is to shuffle backwards till I can feel the bed against the backs of my legs. I want to scream, but it feels like all air has been sucked out of my lungs, so no sound can escape.
Suddenly the window catch comes loose, and the windows fly open with a crash. The ferocity of the gale enters the room, whipping my hair around my face. The raven utters a terrible cry, and I feel a piercing pain in my head. I fall to my knees and hold my hands over my head, but the pain is now spreading over my body. I stare in horror as my legs shrink to tiny stumps, my arms contract and pitch-black feathers start to grow over my body. I scream, but all that comes out from my beak is a harsh guttural sound. The raven shrieks again, and I find myself involuntarily flapping my wings. With two short flaps and hops I am sitting on the windowsill staring into the night. The raven takes off with a beat of its huge wings, and against my will I follow, leaping off the windowsill and careering into the night sky.
I feel horror at what is happening, but also powerless to control the situation or turn away from the raven. It draws me with its will higher and higher, until I see the house below me. I try to draw away, but it is useless, the raven has some sort of hold over me, and try as I might, I cannot break free. The wind shrieks and howls, buffeting me from all sides. I am overcome with despair, and a deep sadness that my life as it was before is over, and I am now a servant of the raven.
But then out of the corner of my eye I catch a flash of white. At first I think it is the moon making a brief appearance from behind the clouds, but in the next moment it becomes larger, and is now streaking towards me. It is a dove, resplendent in white. I it seems to shine with an aura that is larger than its slender body. I feel hope surge up in me, as the dove launches itself at the raven, wings open wide and claws outstretched. The raven turns to meet the new opponent, and I feel its control over me slipping. The two birds tumble and whirl around each other. The raven is large but the dove is powerful, its light shining bright against the darkness. I feel a wave of love flood through me, and I dare to hope that I may be saved, that I might escape from the power of the raven. And then it is over. With a shriek, the raven pulls away, and beating its huge wings, it flies away defeated into the stormy night.
I feel the control of the raven break from me, but now I am tumbling, out of control and again spiralling down towards the ground. But the dove is there for me. It flies to me and steadies me, calming my fear so that I gain some control of my wings. At the last moment I am gliding towards the ground, then I crash into the heath into an ungainly jumble of beak and feathers. I lie there unmoving, thankful to be alive, but unsure what is going to happen next. The dove lands next to me, and suddenly I feel myself growing, stretching back into my human form, wings turning back into arms, feathers receding into my body, until I am myself again, lying huddled in my nightdress in the soft heather, oblivious to anything around me except the howling of the wind, and the presence of the dove.
The dove seems to shimmer now, and then it too stretches and grows, feathers receding until standing there before me is my mother. A sob escapes my lips, and I hurl myself at her, hugging her with all my might. I hold her for a long time, only registering the warmth of her body and her soft breathing above the wind. Then she gently releases my body, and looks me in the eyes.
“Philly,” she says softly, “there is much to tell you.”